Monday, 8 October 2018

The Populist Centre

Theresa May's suggestion in Sunday's Observer that "Labour voters should look afresh at the Conservatives" was clearly an appeal directed not at the electorate but at a minority of Labour MPs whom she hopes will "put country before party" and help pass her Brexit deal in the Commons vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. The buttons she pushed, such as antisemitism and deselection, are not ones that most Labour voters particularly care about. The retail offer to voters - protecting jobs, investing in the NHS, making homes affordable - is pabulum and little different to her previous empty promises to the "just about managing". Announcing an end to austerity while proceeding with Universal Credit and other scheduled expenditure cuts isn't going to convince the electorate, even if she throws in a Mama Mia karaoke, but claiming that "Millions of people who have supported Labour all their lives are appalled by what has happened to a once-great party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn" will be music to the ears of a couple of dozen Labour MPs who fear a Labour victory more than continued Tory misrule.

This might have passed without much comment had the Observer not chosen to put a news report on the front page that essentially advertised May's article while once more banging the drum for a centrist party: "It comes amid rumours in Westminster that disgruntled groups of Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs could try to form a new party on the centre ground to appeal to voters who regard the Tories as too pro-Brexit and right wing, and dislike the leftwing agenda of Corbyn". No attempt was made to put May's appeal into its actual political context as a scouting operation ahead of the big Brexit push, and the contrary quotes (notably from a disinterred David Blunkett) seemed designed to warn Labour not to desert the centre ground. The ridicule that this prompted on Twitter seems to have touched a nerve among the wider commentariat who proceeded to deflect from both May's and the Observer's motives with a variety of specious claims: that giving a platform to the PM is not partisan but a public service; that the left is incapable of tolerating dissent; and that a Corbyn-led government would mean the end of a free press.

Even professional rune-readers were tempted to focus on the resulting kerfuffle rather than May's transparent objective. For Stephen Bush at the New Statesman, "The choice of publication triggered a row of intra-left beef: the Observer is among the publications the Labour leadership regard with suspicion and irritation due to what they see as their excessive and partisan coverage of the People's Vote campaign." In a later take, he conceded that Brexit might have something to do with it but then spoiled his copy by suggesting May was trying to browbeat Philip Hammond on spending. The outpouring of anti-left hyperbole and the focus on West Wing-style machinations don't just distract from the Brexit angle, which the same people usually insist is paramount, they also distract from the ostensible subject of May's pitch: the political centre ground. Matthew d'Ancona, providing the "sceptical" balance in Monday's Guardian, did nominally address it, but his Liberal Tory judgement that May's initiative is doomed because the Conservatives have been made mad by Brexit also left what he revealing calls "the great wasteland between left and right" curiously undefined.

There are two fundamental approaches to building a centre party. The first is the pick-and-mix strategy that adopts popular policies from either flank. This is the "what works" approach favoured by technocrats (cf. Blair and Macron), though their pragmatism always seems to favour one particular flank over the other. The second approach is to establish a unique position that serves to condemn both flanks. That position is likely to be populist in nature, pitting a notional people against an establishment duopoly (though they decry "populism", the localism of the Liberal Democrats is an example of this). Though contradictory, being simultaneously elitist and anti-elitist, these are actually complementary in practice, hence centre parties usually pursue both to varying degrees (e.g. the SNP emphasises the populist angle, En Marche the technocratic). The dirty secret of centrism is that it tends to be more populist than technocratic, simply because techniques of governance like triangulation are routinely adopted by most parties. Neither approach is propitious in the UK at present. The People's Vote was an attempt to pursue a populist strategy, but it has failed because most voters don't consider Brexit to be their paramount concern. The pick-and-mix strategy is a non-starter because, with Labour still moving left and the Tories increasingly febrile, the shifting sands make it difficult to isolate an equidistant position that will be clear to voters.

The truth is that the centre ground doesn't currently exist as a meaningful political territory in the UK, hence the vagueness of d'Ancona and others who try to describe it. There is no "great wasteland", though there is unquestionably a lot of effort wasted in trying to find it. The breaking of the neoliberal spell after 2008 has led to polarisation and an appetite for more radical social and economic measures. The developing failure of the right's prescriptions - the twin beliefs that austerity and Brexit would lead to prosperity - has started to push the electorate towards the left rather than towards the centre. This was the inevitable result of the post-80s political orthodoxy that accepted the Thatcherite dispensation and the vapid philosophy of the Third Way. The centre is no longer distinguishable from the right, if it ever really was, a point that was made crystal clear by the coalition government of 2010-15. This recent shift to the left among the electorate is less a conversion to radicalism than a rediscovery of dormant sympathies. Voters have simply realised that there is an electoral alternative after all. Naturally, you won't find many political commentators prepared to praise Corbyn for keeping the flame alive all these years.

This revival of the left has been mirrored by a counter-movement in which reactionary forces have consolidated around the Tory party. This is more than a consequence of the electoral collapse of UKIP in 2017. It reflects a realisation by rentiers and other privileged groups that they cannot assume a future Labour government would indulge them, as in the New Labour years. While May will talk about bringing the nation together, her government will continue to promote the politics of division: starving the public sector, being hostile to immigrants and the unemployed, and keeping property prices high. Were she to abandon any of these policies, the Conservative coalition would be at risk of fragmentation. Dissatisfaction over Brexit has all the makings of a final straw for many on the right, so antagonising key electoral blocs doesn't make any sense over the next four years. In the circumstances, the idea that the Tories might tack leftwards in any meaningful way is simply incredible. This is obvious to most people, hence the incredulity at the Observer's disingenuous coverage of May's pitch.

But if the Tories aren't going to occupy the empty space of the political centre does this mean that there is still room for a British Macron, a mix of the technician and the populist, to emerge? The Observer and the right wing of Labour might think so, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Not only is there not a credible clean-skin (that the likes of Gina Miller have been mooted is proof of desperation), but there isn't sufficient dissatisfaction with the established parties and thus the fragmentation of the electorate that would allow a centrist to emerge from a crowded field. Macron led in the first round of the French Presidential election in 2017 with only 24% of the vote. In most years that would have condemned him to third place and elimination. More fundamentally, there is no populist cause other than remain that a centrist political force can leverage this side of Brexit, while post-Brexit it is likely to find itself squeezed by the revived populism of the left and the increasingly chaotic populism of the right. The irony is that populism has undermined centrism not because the one is antipathetic to the other but because centrism has lost its monopoly on populism.


  1. What do you think of Frances Coppola's claim that Labour is now screwed, because they must either accept the Tory Brexit deal (and thus be seen as sell-outs, like the Lib Dems are due to tuition fees) or reject the deal (and be blamed for the resulting no-deal Brexit)?

    1. Her analysis is contradictory. On the one hand she claims May's deal can never pass Labour's six tests, but then imagines them voting for the govt. She claims May & the EU wouldn't be daft enough to agree a deal the DUP would reject, but then imagines Labour defeating the govt and causing a no-deal exit.

      The most likely scenario is that May wins the vote narrowly, probably relying on a handful of Labour rebels (the ones she was pitching to in the Observer), avoids a general election and is then replaced as Tory leader.

      With Brexit now history, I suspect support for the Tories will fall as the parties' domestic agenda come into sharper relief amidst a recession.

    2. Labours six tests are actually David Davis's stated aspirations for what the outcome of a deal with the EU would be. Davis still believes that at the eleventh hour the EU would have capitulated to all his demands if only T May had continued the bluff instead of her own slow submission to the EU.

      That everyone has already forgotten that these 6 tests were actually Davis's stated objectives is something Keir Starmer needs to think about somewhat lest he and Labour become the party the public see as demanding the unattainable.

    3. Labour has already shown signs of flexibility on the 6 tests: that was the point about Corbyn's speech in Liverpool. Essentially they are pushing for a customs union and single market in goods. That (Norway+) is clearly attainable.

    4. I guess it's more Norway - rather than + otherwise FoM comes into the equation, either way it's still cherry picking. Labours recognition that there needs to be a customs Union Agreement (especially in the case of the NI/RoI border) sets them apart slightly from the Tory position which, as far as I can discern, recognises that one is required but they would rather it was called something else.

  2. If Labour vote down a May Bino deal and cause a general election they could lose. In a Brexit election Labour would then have to campaign for a Bino deal close to the one they just voted down. Tricky.

    Very hard to see May and Corbyn in the same lobby. John McDonnell not Ramsay MacDonald.

    A good outcome for Corbyn and Labour is if May's Bino deal is passed with the support of a few Labour MP's. The Tory right then have to mount a challenge to May.

    If the Tory right win then they have to back track on the Bino deal just passed in parliament. The Tory party is at this point very unstable a general election must follow. Not necessarily a Brexit election. The Tories are banging on about Brexit, Labour can stick with the May Bino deal and campaign on everything else.

    If the right lose and May remains Tory leader having delivered Brexit then the Tories are in a strong position. Success for May in 2022 would depend if she could ditch the right economically. It would require cancelling cuts in government spending already scheduled ditching deficit fetishism, generating some growth e.t.c. Unlikely but possible.

    Centre ground. Falling asleep in front of the TV after one can too many. Coming round slowly during Newsnight some politician saying universal credit could be made to work if enough money was spent on it. A rare outing for Yvette Cooper? putting on glasses, no it was Heidi Allen.